On an early morning late last spring about 100 educators from districts serving California’s rural areas trickled into a meeting hall north of Sacramento for the inaugural launch of a network meant to address their isolation and frustration.
Among them were staff from county offices of education, school superintendents, principals and a handful of students. They hailed from as far as southern Imperial County on the Mexican border to remote northern Modoc, from Mono County to the east to coastal Humboldt in the west.
Their common interest: Addressing what they call a crisis in rural education. The goal of the nascent California Rural Ed Network, which launched online Oct. 1, is to join forces to attract new resources, share expertise and focus attention of policy makers to schools outside urban and suburban California — many of them underfunded and serving a preponderance of low-income students.
When then-Butte County Office of Education Assistant Superintendent Susan Hukkanen addressed the gathering to explain her proposed network, she sounded more like a preacher or a politician than a bureaucrat.
“We are asking you to join other advocates and spokespersons for a completely and overdue focus on isolated, underserved and woefully underfunded rural schools,” she beckoned. “Now is the time to raise our voices to transform our rural schools into viable hubs for their communities.”
Hukkanen was helping to lead a team working to bring “Multi-Tiered System of Support” — known as MTSS — to every school in rural California. The approach is intended to address academic and social-emotional learning for all students and then provide support for those in need of extra assistance.
In her conversations with colleagues in other rural districts, common concerns kept popping up: They felt overlooked, under-resourced, overwhelmed by the needs of their students and families and entirely absent from statewide policy conversations.
“We don’t get the grants because we don’t have the numbers,” said Hukkanen, who came up with the idea last year for a network where educators could share resources.
Federal education officials have designated about a fifth of California’s nearly 10,000 schools as “rural” or “town” schools for purposes of data analysis. Town schools are those located at least 10 miles from an urbanized area — in places like Yucca Valley in Southern California and Oroville in Northern California.
Hukkanen’s effort to organize educators in rural California is novel but the problems are national in scope. A recent report by the National School Boards Association Center for Public Education probes the challenges faced by rural students, who make up a fifth of the nation’s total. It notes that the impact of “poverty, isolation and inequities” are exacerbated “by the lack of attention to the unique needs of this considerable student population.”
At the gathering last spring, Christine McCormick, director of student support services at Sutter County’s Office of Education, took the microphone next. McCormick helped spearhead the network’s emphasis on rooting its work in research. Its rural research panel recently began uploading a plethora of information to a searchable online resource bank.
“Tell us what you need,” she asked attendees.
And they did. As the morning unfolded, participants spoke of the lack of access to professional development. Just getting there can be challenging. Transportation costs are steep and there are no substitutes to fill in for teachers while they attend workshops. Fluctuating daily attendance wreaks havoc on district budgets. Poor or nonexistent broadband connectivity hampers students from taking online advanced placement courses and educators from relying on online instruction. Too many students don’t complete the courses they need to gain admission to California’s four-year colleges. According to the most recent report of the Rural School and Community Trust, only 22.5 percent of California’s rural high school juniors and seniors had taken the ACT or SAT test — the lowest of any state nationwide.
And almost every educator in the room who spoke lamented the unaddressed needs of their students and families, many of whom struggle with poverty.
In response to a widely distributed follow-up survey, more than seven dozen respondents from 21 rural counties prioritized their areas of deepest concern: staff and teacher recruitment; a lack of resources for students with “diverse needs,” including special education students and those from diverse backgrounds; family and student trauma; drug and alcohol abuse; and poor parent engagement. They also listed as a common concern the long distances many families must travel for mental health treatment.
Schools in Oroville, where Hukkanen’s office is based, have posted some of the highest student suspension rates in the state. The Butte County Office of Education administers state and federal grants and helps run training and student support programs in more than 40 counties across the state. Employees there are steeped in the latest educational research. But participation in regional trainings are voluntary and rural superintendents, principals and teachers — who are stretched thin — often can’t or don’t take part.
But experts on trauma say awareness is growing in rural California about the underlying challenges students — as well as rural staff and educators — face at home and how to best address them.
The turning point came after the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness in 2014 conducted a survey across California to probe exposure to “adverse childhood experiences.” Studies show those experiences — among them physical, sexual or emotional abuse; and parental mental illness, addiction or incarceration — can lead to lasting physiological and emotional damage in adulthood.
Of all the counties, respondents in Butte County reported the highest rates of adverse childhood events. More than three-fourths of the adults surveyed had experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences and 30 percent reported experiencing four or more.
The results validated what many county residents had suspected. The survey also spurred the creation of Butte Thrives, a coalition run out of the Butte County offices of First 5 — a public program created in each of California’s 58 counties two decades ago to support children in the crucial first five years of life.
The coalition conducts trainings and consults with public agencies — including school districts and social service providers — about how to react to students, clients and staff through a lens that acknowledges the impact of early traumas.
“As a community we saw this data and thought, ‘This is something we can sink our teeth into,’” said Anna Bauer, a First 5 program manager who is Butte Thrives’ only paid staffer. “We certainly can’t deny it….so we need to start having a conversation about what to do about it.”
There are few mental health and other social service resources in the county and they don’t come close to meeting the need, Bauer said. But Butte Thrives is promoting trainings on how institutions that serve children, including schools and school districts, can become “trauma-informed,” shifting the tone from a punitive or blaming one to one more sensitive to the underlying causes of a student’s behavior. “Instead of saying, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘What did you do?’” Bauer explained, “ask ‘What has happened?’”
In her relatively conservative county, Bauer said, plenty of people’s first reaction is that families should “bootstrap it” and “handle their business….It’s sort of like, ‘Well, they should stop using drugs.’” But blaming adults — or their children — for their behavior, she said, will only perpetuate the cycle.
Though few educators from Oroville schools have attended Butte Thrives’ regular meetings or workshops so far, Bauer said, officials in other neighboring districts have embraced the message. Among them is Dena Kapsalis, principal of Honey Run Academy, a community day school in nearby Paradise that serves youth in grades 7-12 who have not succeeded at traditional high schools.
Kapsalis has held multiple professional development workshops on a trauma-informed approach for all her staff — including bus drivers, maintenance and food service workers — as well as for other districts countywide. Students at her school are overwhelmingly white and many come from families that are experiencing addiction, untreated mental illness and incarceration. Some students have had family members killed by law enforcement. Outrage against these shootings, Kapsalis said, have led to a movement some here call “Ridge Lives Matter.”
“Rural America,” Kapsalis said, “has become the new Inner City by so many different indicators. That’s a very difficult pill for the local rural communities to swallow.”
What her whole staff — some of them traumatized themselves — are coming to learn, she said, is to approach the anger and withdrawal of students as “symptoms of attempts to cope” and avoid “re-traumatizing these kiddos.”
“Swearing, talking back, we don’t know how much self-regulation has been provided by the student themselves,” Kapsalis noted. “Maybe cussing you out was instead of throwing the desk at you.”
Instead of blaming families, she said, she has learned “to take a really hard and honest look at my practice and have it start with me. I have to do things differently if I expect difference. As the principal I have to model that, and it can’t just be me. There has to be buy-in from everybody.”
Staff at the Butte County’s Office of Education agree and they’ve been pushing the message. The California Department of Education’s relatively new accountability dashboard has given them a bit more power to do so. Now, when at least one student group in a district receives the lowest ranking in two or more areas — suspensions among them — the district is required to work with its county office of education or a new state agency to improve student performance.
Jeanette Spencer, in charge of district support, said she and other team members recently convened about a dozen principals countywide — though none attended from Oroville — to analyze the root causes of suspensions over the past five years and brainstorm solutions. But, Spencer said, the school leaders kept returning over and over to the bad behavior of “the students and their families.”
“I came back and said, ‘OK, we can’t be blaming anybody,’” Spencer recalled. “Where do we have control? The answer can’t be a person or a family.”
Spencer said local educators are “struggling with the mind shift” but her team is here to help.
On a recent day five of them gathered to brainstorm solutions for four districts with high suspension rates of students with disabilities. They got to work, jotting interventions on a white board. Among them was PBIS — or Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a framework to set positive expectations for all students and reward them, then increase supports for those students who need more help.
One team member suggested restorative practices, an approach to resolving conflict by making all parties whole rather than punishing. Another tossed out Social-Emotional Learning, an approach that helps students better understand and control their emotions. And yet another, a curriculum to help schools focus on equity and address potential “implicit bias” towards certain student groups.
“It’s really about engagement and school climate,” said Sheri Hanni, program coordinator for attendance issues and Multi-Tiered System of Support. “It’s about what are the adults going to do differently, not what should the student do.”
Hukkanen agreed. It’s why she formed the rural ed network.
“I’m really looking at teachers and staff — and just systems in general — not having access to the resources that they need in order to transform their own practices in the classroom and in the principal’s office. That’s really what we’re striving for.”
Hukkanen recently retired. Taking her place at the helm of the California rural ed network is the Butte County Office of Education’s Rindy DeVoll, who is now director of Multi-Tiered System of Support for all of rural California. DeVoll said the network’s resource bank already contains a wealth of information on the issues rural educators identified as top priorities in survey responses. More will follow.
Hukkanen will remain involved as a consultant in the push to implement the Multi-Tiered System of Support framework in rural schools, thanks to a recent $15 million state grant and a new partnership between the offices of education in Butte and Orange counties and UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools. Among her goals: reducing suspensions and improving school climate and student engagement.